As my doctoral studies were in Indian philosophy and my ethnic background is part Indian, I was often asked whether my studies had to do with exploring my own heritage. The answer is basically no.
As I noted in telling my story, I came to the study of Asian philosophy through Thai Buddhism, which is not at all part of my ethnic background. I learned Sanskrit and Pali because it seemed to me that most of what was philosophically interesting in Thai Buddhism had come from its Indian heritage – even though Buddhism in India had all but died out.
If I ever thought my heritage would play a major role in the process, such thoughts stopped in my first-year Sanskrit class. My teacher, Stephanie Jamison, was explaining the rules of caste in traditional dharmaśāstra (ethical-legal texts), and how the brahmins were the ones expected to do all the thinking. I wondered whether I counted as a brahmin by this standard, so I asked: how would they count the offspring of a brahmin and an outsider, a yavana?
She answered: caste mixing is always viewed as an evil, so the offspring of any mix would be counted as the lower of the two – at the very best. In other words, according to the Laws of Manu, I’m a white boy. (If not an outright abomination.) Continue reading